In a back to school workshop in August 2012, Cologne Academy math teacher Chris Johnson was asked for one out-of-school goal he had for the upcoming year.
Scrambling for an answer, Johnson, of Waconia, told his coworkers he was training for American Ninja Warrior, a television show that features a live-action obstacle course.
“It was just totally random,” he said.
As his coworkers jumped on board, the Pequot Lakes native and Winona State graduate began to consider the ridiculousness of his goal. He went to the gym maybe twice a week, had run only one 5K in his life, and considered himself every bit the average guy.
“The guy who once in awhile goes to the gym, lifts weights, maybe once in awhile hops on a treadmill,” he said.
Competitors he’d seen on American Ninja Warrior were toned, talented athletes, and Johnson considered ditching his lofty goal.
In September of that same year, Johnson’s grandfather was diagnosed with a Stage 4 lung cancer and was gone within a matter of weeks. A child of divorce, Johnson grew up living with his mother and spent a lot of time with grandparents. His grandfather’s death hit him hard.
“He was like a dad to me,” Johnson said. “Seeing him in all the pain he was in inspired me to keep going.”
Spurred by his grandfather, Johnson began training in earnest for American Ninja Warrior, eventually working up to visiting the gym 5-6 days a week. He changed his eating habits, lost 40 pounds, and tailored his workouts to include elements he might encounter if selected for American Ninja Warrior – rock climbing, yoga, body weights, “everything you can possibly think of,” he said.
With no course of his own to practice on, Johnson simulated elements and obstacles as best he could at the Bring It! Crossfit Studio in Chanhassen, which offered ropes, boxes, and bars for Johnson to swing from and jump off.
As his training progressed, Johnson brought his students on board and incorporated fitness into his 6th-8th grade math classes at Cologne Academy, sending his students home with fitness homework each night.
After over a year of training, Johnson submitted his video in February 2014 for consideration to American Ninja Warrior. In four minutes or less, Johnson had to share his personal story and demonstrate his athleticism.
While chaperoning a middle school dance in early April, Johnson got the call. He had been accepted as one of 500 contestants to compete in regional competitions for American Ninja Warrior. Chosen from thousands of submitted videos, Johnson is headed to Denver on May 13-14.
Johnson will get a walk-through of the course prior to the competition, but won’t get a chance to try any of the elements until go time, where contestants will run the course from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., not knowing when they’ll compete during the night.
“They really make it tough on you,” Johnson said. “It’s not going to be easy.”
In this regional event, the course is not timed, but participants must finish in order to be asked back the next night, to face the same course, but with additional elements. A missed hand hold here or a slippery foot there can quickly end a competitor’s run. One chance to complete the course is all they get.
Although he feels physically ready, Johnson is most worried about the first obstacle – the 5 Steps.
“It’s not easy but it should be easy,” he said. “You train for two years and to go down on the first obstacle … I don’t want that to be me.”
With only an idea of what kinds of obstacles will await him on the course, Johnson said he’s ready.
“You’ve got to be ready for anything, it’s called being ninja ready,” he said.
He said he mentally prepares by eliminating negative thoughts and “just a lot of visualization.”
With his mother, stepfather, and wife cheering him on in Denver, Johnson will no doubt have fans back in Minnesota in his siblings, other family members, and Cologne Academy students, who will eagerly await the Season 6 premiere of American Ninja Warrior on May 26, in hopes of catching of glimpse of their hometown hero.
If Johnson makes it through the first two rounds in Denver, he’ll be invited to compete in the four-stage course in Las Vegas later this summer.
The four-stage Ninja Warrior course began in Japan in 1997 on the show “Sasuke,” now in its 30th season.
A competitor must finish one stage in order to advance to the next. Stages 1, 2, and 4 are timed events, while Stage 3 focuses on upper body strength and is not timed. The first three stages are a myriad of obstacles a challenger must overcome. The fourth and final course is an over 75-foot vertical climb, also timed.
The course is redesigned each time a “total victory,” is achieved, which has happened only four times in Sasuke history by three Japanese men.
The American Ninja Warrior series began in 2009 and promises $500,000 to the first American champion.
It’s always nice to dream, and Johnson knows just what he would do with the prize money. First, he and his wife would pay off their new house in Waconia and entertain their passion for clothes. The rest would be put into savings for retirement.
But without getting too far ahead of himself, Johnson is focused solely on preparing for Denver in the coming days and completing the first run of the course.
“I feel very ready,” he said. “I’ve trained my butt off.”
Even if he doesn’t complete the course on May 13, Johnson fully intends to continue training and try again in the future.
American Ninja Warrior Season 6 premieres on May 26 on NBC and will continue on Mondays from 8 to 10 p.m. throughout the summer with the finale on Sept. 15.
Contact Melissa Marohl at [email protected]